I don’t know how many teenage readers are out there — I know that isn’t the majority of who makes up this Web site’s readership. But today, I’m writing for you. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with something, ANYthing, that I could fill my space with this week, and after reading through some old writing from my own adolescence, I finally stumbled upon it. I’m going to talk about living with diabetes through the teenage years.
Adolescence is a rocky, unstable period of time for everyone. It’s unstable for the adolescent, for the family of the adolescent, for the teachers of the adolescent, for…well, you get the point. It’s a time of massive change and transition, a time of individuation and separation. It can’t help but be a bit bumpy. And that can be frustrating for everyone involved. Diabetes complicates the matter considerably.
Think about this idea of “individuation.” It means adolescents are separating from parental control to self-control. This is a good thing, something that NEEDS to happen. But that doesn’t make it any less scary. It’s hard enough for parents to let go of managing their kid’s homework time. But if the subject in question is diabetes, it can literally be life or death decisions we’re talking about.
The full extent of this discussion could probably take up an entire book, so a 900-word blog entry won’t cover it. But I thought I would share a few of my own observations both as someone who went through the transition, and as a family therapist, in the hopes of helping both adolescents making the transition and their parents.
Negotiation, not isolation
Taking of the reins of your own life doesn’t mean you need to shut out all of the people, including your parents, who have guided you this far. This is particularly true with diabetes. For many of you, diabetes has been with you since early childhood, and for most of that period, control of diabetes was entirely in the hands of your parents. Well, maybe not entirely, but the majority was, and certainly it was the parents holding the long-range view of things. If the time has come for transition of power, don’t try to make this an all-or-nothing, overnight handoff.
The key is negotiating — and here I’m speaking to both adolescents AND parents. I’ve seen too many parents start with demands, only to see any hope of a conversation collapse in yet another power struggle. And I understand that handing over this kind of control is scary, but think about this for a second: At some point, your child WILL be living outside of your supervision. At some point in the not-too-distant future, your child will HAVE to be in charge of his diabetes. And so holding on too tightly now doesn’t serve anyone. It is better that they make their wrong blood glucose calculations NOW than leave for college and make their mistakes there without a solid support system.
In negotiation, the keys are really quite simple. All parties must be willing to do three things. First, everyone must be willing to listen to what the other has to say. Second, everyone must be open to the possibility of changing views and opinions. And third, everyone must be willing to bend a little. If these three things are fully practiced (and I do mean fully — “listening” doesn’t mean waiting until someone is done talking, and then steamrolling over them with whatever it is YOU wanted to say before THEY started talking), even difficult transitions can become manageable.
Empathy, empathy, empathy
Empathy means to “co-experience.” It is often confused with “sympathy,” but the two are very different. “Sympathy” means to feel bad FOR someone. Empathy means to feel WHAT the other person is feeling, see WHAT the other person is seeing. It means stepping into another’s shoes and seeing the world from their eyes. And we naturally do this with the people we love and with the people we agree with. However, empathy is not strictly limited to those we agree with, love, or even LIKE.
It is entirely possible to empathize with people we dislike, people we are fighting with, and people we disagree with. We don’t tend to do it, but that’s only because it takes conscious effort to empathize in the midst of strong negative feelings. But disliking someone does NOT stop us from being able to empathize with them. And certainly, a mere disagreement or argument doesn’t have the power to stop us from empathizing.
If you find yourself in the midst of a power struggle, a disagreement, or even a heated argument on how to manage your diabetes with your parents (and parents, if you find yourself in such an exchange with your adolescent), pause. Leave the room if you have to, put the conversation on hold, and take 5 minutes to SEE THE SITUATION FROM THE OTHER PERSON’S EYES. Don’t critique the other person’s logic. Don’t dismiss their feelings, even if you don’t think they’re reasonable. Just sit with THEIR eyes for a while, and wait until you can feel just a bit of what THEY must be feeling. And then come back.
I’ve seen this with clients. I’ve seen that moment when a fight takes a pause, and both parties finally take a step in the others’ shoes. It is an amazing moment. And after that moment, everything becomes possible. Forgiveness becomes possible, cooperation becomes possible, compromise becomes possible. And it is the single most important tool you have for negotiating this oh-so-rocky road of adolescence with diabetes.